The Law of Holes
May 7, 2012
First published in In Stitches Magazine, November 1996
O’Reilly’s near-death experience
I was surprised one day when, after evening “surgery,” I retired to the upstairs sitting room to find my senior colleague, Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, sitting in his usual armchair sipping what appeared to be a gin and tonic rather than his usually preferred whiskey. He ignored my entrance and my polite inquiry about whether he’d like me to refurbish his drink.
Do remember that such suggestions were usually greeted with the enthusiasm towards an impending monsoon of those peculiar toads that live in states of total dehydration in certain deserts, only coming to full animation when the rains appear.
“Sure?” I said, helping myself to a very small sherry.
“No,” he replied lugubriously, pulling out his old briar and stoking the infernal device until the smoke clouds gave a fair impression of the aftereffects of the combined weight of the attentions of the RAF and the USAAF on the hapless town of Dresden.
“No/yes or no/no?” I said brightly.
“What are you on about, Taylor?”
As far as I could tell through the industrial haze, his nose wasn’t pallid, yet his use of my surname was an indicator of his general state of displeasure. Foolishly, I ploughed on.
“Er, no you’re not sure you don’t want another, which is a way of saying yes you do, because if you had been sure that you wanted no more to drink your answer should have been yes and …”
“Sit down,” he said, “and shut up.”
Which actually seemed like a very sensible thing to do. I sat and said, self-effacingly, “Right. First law of holes: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
The thought struck me as, if not original, at least comical.
“How,” he said peering over his half-moon spectacles, “did you know?”
“How did I know about what?”
“The hole, you idiot.”
“I read it somewhere,” I confessed.
He grunted. “Couldn’t have. It only happened last night.”
I was becoming confused. Truth to tell, my being in a fuddled state around O’Reilly was closer to the norm than his drinking gin and tonic. I felt a sense of relief, the kind of feeling that comes with knowing that God is indeed in His Heaven and all is right with the world.
“And,” he said, “no one knows about it except Seamus Galvin and me.”
My confusion was now as dense as the tobacco fog that surrounded us.
O’Reilly sighed heavily. “Would you like to hear my side?”
It almost seemed a shame to be enlightened. “Please.”
He gestured with the glass in his hand. “I’ll have to give it up.”
Enlightenment was going to be some time coming. I’d thought we were discussing holes. “Digging holes?”
“No.” He shuddered like a wounded water buffalo. “The drink.”
Oops. I thought for a moment that I was having an auditory hallucination. Fingal O’Reilly? Give up the drink?
“All because of the hole, you see.”
“Of course,” I said. They’d taught us in psychiatry to humour certain types of raving lunatics. I saw not at all but had no intention of enraging O’Reilly.
He pointed at his glass. “Just tonic water,” he said in tones that would have done a professional mourner great credit. “Bloody Galvin,” he added, and lapsed into silence.
Tonic water. Holes. Galvin. I had some difficulty seeing any logical connection. Then I remembered. Seamus Galvin and his wife Mary were the ones who were going to emigrate because O’Reilly had restored their family fortunes by clandestinely purchasing a garage full of rocking ducks.
The Galvins were leaving tomorrow and last night there had been a send-off at the “Mucky Duck.” I’d missed it because of a long confinement in an outlying cottage, but O’Reilly had attended. Something Fingal had said earlier came back to me: “It only happened last night.” Now, Galvin’s party was last night and something concerning a hole had happened, something sufficiently catastrophic as to make O’Reilly decide to take the pledge. I was beginning to feel I merely needed a magnifying glass and a deerstalker to be able to change my name to Sherlock. I might even ask Fingal if I could borrow his pipe. Only one question. What was the “something”?
O’Reilly’s rumbling interrupted my attempt to reason things out. “Should never have let Galvin leave by himself.”
So it was at the party.
“I should never have taken a short cut through the churchyard, but it was pouring, you see.” He peered over his spectacles.
“Quite,” I said solicitously.
O’Reilly took a deep swallow of his tonic water and regarded the glass with a look of total disgust before fixing me with a stony glare and saying, “No harm telling you, seeing you already know.”
I merely nodded.
“I fell into a freshly dug grave.”
The — or more accurately, my — mind boggled.
“I couldn’t get out. It was raining, you see,” he said by way of an explanation. His nose tip was now becoming pallid.
I seem to remember that when stout Horatio made it across the foaming Tiber, his enemies ”could scarce forbear to cheer.” Being attached to my teeth I felt that despite the mental image of O’Reilly scrabbling like a demented hamster against the slick sides of a muddy six-foot hole, I definitely should forbear to laugh.“Oh dear.”
“Yes,” he said aggrievedly. “Bloody Galvin. How was I to know he’d fallen into the same grave? It was black as half a yard up a chimney down there. And cold. What was I to do?”
“Stop digging? First law of holes,” I said.
“Don’t be so bloody silly. I huddled against a corner and like an eejit said aloud to myself, ‘Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, you’re not going to get out of here tonight.’ Galvin, who must have been lurking in another corner, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘By God you won’t.’ But …,” O’Reilly shrugged, “by God, I did.”
“Must have given you an awful shock,” I remarked, wandering over to the sideboard and pouring a stiff Paddy.
“It did. Oh indeed it did. Got the strength of ten men.”
I handed him the glass. “I believe shock can be treated with spirits.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, swallowing a large measure, “and none of your no/yes, no/no rubbish.”
O’Reilly’s near-death experience